Panasonic's AX902 is a great Ultra HD 4K TV but it's just too expensive
What is the Panasonic AX902?The Panasonic AX902 is their new flagship Ultra HD 4K TV which uses an LCD panel with direct LED backlighting. Panasonic first demonstrated the AX902 at CES 2014 where they claimed it would deliver a performance that was better than plasma. These claims seem to have gone by the wayside in the ten months it has taken for the AX902 to make it to market. Still the AX902 has finally arrived, raising the big question - was it worth the wait?
Well the first surprise is that despite Panasonic's initial claims to better than plasma blacks, the 55 and 65-inch versions use an IPS panel which means the local dimming had better be good. At least the use of direct LED backlighting means that the uniformity should be excellent and Panasonic also haven't skimped on the features and build quality. We finally get Netflix 4K, all the HDMI inputs fully support HDMI 2.0 and Panasonic promise state-of-the-art calibration controls and video processing.
The Panasonic AX902 comes in three screen sizes, the previously mentioned 55 and 65-inch versions and a massive 85-inch model. The 55-inch TX-55AX902B retails for £3,499 at the time of writing (December 2014), whilst the 65-inch model - the TX-65AX902B - currently retails for a hefty £4,999; both these models use an IPS panel with passive 3D. The 85-inch version - the TX-85X942B - uses a VA panel with active shutter 3D and retails for an eye-watering £12,999.
Design and ConnectionsIn terms of overall design, the AX902 follows the same template set by the AX802 with a flat screen at a slight incline and a large, very heavy base stand at the rear. The look is rather uninspired and similar to Sony's old 'monolith' design with the viewer essentially being faced with a screen and nothing else. The screen itself is surrounded by a 1cm black bezel and there is a silver metal trim around the outer edge. Due to the use of direct LED backlighting, the chassis is deeper than normal but still relatively thin at 5cm deep.
Along the front bottom is a black border with an LED strip, that can be turned off, and the built-in speakers. The clearance from the bottom of the screen to the bottom of the chassis is only a few centimetres, which will make adding a soundbar tricky. In addition the AX902 can't be swivelled due to the base stand, so positioning will be important. This is especially true because the glass screen in front of the panel is very reflective, so any light will show up even on bright scenes.
The AX902 comes with a built-in camera/microphone, which either pops up when you access an app that needs it, such as Skype, or it pops up when you turn the TV on if you're taking advantage of the motion control features. Frankly we found this feature annoying as the TV kept turning on every time we walked in the room so we ultimately left it off. The overall build quality is excellent and the metal construction and glass screen at the front of the panel, along with the base stand mean that the 55-inch AX902 is very heavy.
At the rear, along with this very heavy base stand you'll find a set of basic controls on the right hand side as you face the screen and a 1.5m long hardwired power cable. Also at the rear are three fans and, in a manner reminiscent of Panasonic's plasmas, these are audible when the sound is off. We certainly couldn't hear them when actually watching content but this is an area that people respond to differently and the environment can also have a big impact; so you should definitely take this into account.
The AX902 has four HDMI inputs, one of which faces downwards and three of which face sideways. All the HDMI inputs on the AX902 are version 2.0 compliant, which means they can handle 18Gbps at 4:4:4 and support HDCP 2.2; this is an improvement on the AX802 which only had one HDMI 2.0 input. There are also three USB ports, an Ethernet socket, twin Freeview and Freest tuners, a headphone socket, legacy connections and DisplayPort 1.2a.
The side facing inputs are only 11cm from the edge, which is too close and could result in unsightly cables. We really wish manufacturers would put any sideways facing inputs further from the edge. The AX902 has built-in WiFi as well and initially this worked fine but after a couple of days the connection was lost. We ultimately managed to reacquire the wireless connection but for a time we had to use an Ethernet cable and found the WiFi to be somewhat flakey at times.
The design is uninspired and derivative but the build quality is excellent.
Remote ControlsThe AX902 comes with two remote controls, the first of which is a variation on the design that Panasonic have been using for some time. It now has an attractive brushed metal finish in keeping with the TV's flagship status and the same sensible layout with easy to access buttons. There’s also a backlight, for use at night, and it’s good to see Panasonic not scrimping on the conventional remote in favour of their smart controller. The latter boasts the same brushed metal finish and includes touch and voice features as well as offering a simplified set of controls.
As if remote and voice control weren't enough, Panasonic have also introduced motion controls which work in conjunction with the built-in camera; although as we said earlier we found them to be rather annoying. However that is certainly not the case with Panasonic's VIERA Remote app which is easily one of the best designed and most comprehensive remote apps available. There are free versions for both iOS and Android and this is one app that benefits from being used on a tablet as it allows you to take full advantage of all the other features on the app as well.
Panasonic 55AX902 Features & SpecsThe AX902 uses Panasonic's My Home Screen Smart TV platform , which offers plenty of features and the ability to choose a layout that suits your needs. The available apps are generally good and the file support is fairly comprehensive, including AVCHD, AVI, MKV, WMV, MP4, FLV, MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, JPEG and MPO. The addition of the Freetime app means Panasonic can match Samsung in being able to claim possession of all the major UK catch up services - BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 40D and Demand 5. The AX902 includes HEVC decoding which means you can watch Netflix 4K, assuming you have a fast enough broadband connection. A separate in-depth review of Panasonic's Smart TV system can be found here.
In terms of other features, the AX902 uses Panasonic's Studio Master Drive which is designed to produce smooth gradations and higher detail in blacks. There is also the direct LED backlight and Local Dimming Ultra which utilises 128 dimming zones to improve the blacks and reduce halos and other artefacts. The Ultra Bright Panel is the result of a combination the direct LED backlighting and a more transparent LCD panel; whilst the Studio Master Colour allows for an expanded colour gamut.
The AX902 also includes Quad Core Pro5 image processing and 4K 3000 Hz BLS with Intelligent Frame Creation Pro. The AX902 also uses the latest version of the remote app, which now allows you to calibrate any of the picture settings rather than just the Custom setting. This is very handy for professional calibrators, who can make adjustments through the app without menus affecting the measurements. The controls are also more precise, making the remote app a genuinely useful calibration tool.
The AX902 uses passive 3D and thus comes with some lightweight glasses, although only two pairs are included which seems a bit stingy when you consider the price of the TV. Still the design is simple but effective and, as always with passive 3D, you don't need to worry about batteries or charging. You also won't have to worry about any flicker when using them and, although Panasonic may only include two pairs, you can easily increase the number of glasses you have available by simply using any RealD glasses brought back from the cinema.
Panasonic include an impressive set of features, a decent Smart TV platform and a great remote app.
Picture SettingsWhen it comes to setting the AX902 up correctly, we would recommend using the THX Cinema preset. Unless you plan on getting a professional calibration, this setting will give you the most accurate out-of-the-box performance and then all you need to do is set the backlight, contrast and brightness to best suit your viewing environment. If you would like to find out more about how to correctly setup your new television try our handy PicturePerfect guide. Alternatively, if you would like to experiment with more settings you can try one of the Professional modes, which will give you access to more detailed picture controls. You can find our recommended detailed settings here.
We tested all the available picture settings and found that the THX Cinema mode offered the most accurate out-of-the-box measurements. As the graph below left shows, the greyscale was actually very good with the three primary colours tracking quite close to each other. The overall errors were largely below the threshold of three but towards the brighter part of the scale, there is an excess of red and a deficit of blue resulting in a slight push towards yellow. The gamma curve is tracking our initial target of 2.2 very well however and overall this is a great performance.
The CIE Chart below right shows that this accuracy extended to the colour gamut as well, with all the colours delivering overall errors that are at or below the threshold of three. The luminance performances of all the colours were very good, as were the saturation measurements and aside from a slight error in cyan, so were the hue numbers. This is an impressively accurate set of colours and, when combined with the excellent greyscale measurements, results in a great out-of-the-box performance. This accuracy should please any new owner, especially if you don't plan on getting a professional calibration.
However if you do plan on getting your new AX902 calibrated, the good news is that the included calibration controls are excellent. As a result a professional calibrator should be able to get a reference level of greyscale and colour accuracy from your new Panasonic TV. The AX902 has both a two-point and a ten-point white balance control, allowing us to get equal amounts of red, green and blue at each IRE point. We also chose to use a gamma curve of 2.4 and the AX902 included controls that allowed us to ensure that this too was very accurate. The resulting errors were all well below one, which is essentially perfect.
This level of accuracy is equally as applicable to the colour gamut and thanks to a highly effective colour management system (CMS) we were able to achieve errors that were also well below one. The wider colour gamut of the panel made it easy to bring the luminance, saturation and hue co-ordinates of all the colours into line with the industry standard of Rec.709. This colour accuracy extended to lower saturation points and not just 100%, which confirmed what we could already see - the AX902 is capable of a reference colour performance.
The out-of-the-box accuracy was excellent whilst the AX902 delivered a reference performance after calibration.
Input LagThe AX902 has a lot to recommend it but the one area where it definitely won't appeal to certain consumers is in terms of its input lag. We measured the AX902 at 90ms with Game Mode engaged and we couldn't get that lower no matter what we tried. We made sure absolutely all the processing features were turned off and we tried renaming the HDMI input but we couldn't get the input lag below 90ms. This is high, even for an Ultra HD 4K TV and will certainly be too much for any serious gamers out there; whilst even the less dedicated out there might notice a slight latency. It's a shame really because games on our PS4 looked great on the higher resolution panel but, if gaming is your thing, then the AX902 is probably not the TV for you.
Sound QualityPanasonic have successfully been trying to improve the quality of the sound on their TVs and this continues with the AX902. The black bar along the bottom of the frame contains forward-firing speakers and, when combined with the deeper chassis, which allows larger speakers to be used, the results are much improved. Overall the sound quality was very good and the built-in dual speakers and woofer delivered a decent, room-filling sound. Thanks to the screen size there was a reasonable sense of stereo separation and the volume could go quite high without distorting, whilst dialogue remained clear. We're not saying that a good sound bar or all-in-one system wouldn't be better but, as built-in audio goes, the AX902 did a commendable job.
Panasonic TX-55AX902 Video Review
Panasonic TX-55AX902B Picture QualityThe big selling point of the AX902 is its picture quality and certainly based upon the calibrated measurements above, the image accuracy was excellent. This was immediately apparent when watching actual content, with natural and realistic colours and accurate whites. The greyscale and colour performance were very good out-of-the-box and the AX902 was capable of a reference performance after calibration.
The use of a direct LED backlight meant that the screen uniformity was excellent, with an even backlight and no obvious pooling, clouding bleeding or bright corners. We were also glad to see that the LEDs themselves were not visible through the panel, nor did we have any problems with banding on camera pans across a uniform area such as a football field. This is certainly one area where Panasonic's use of direct LED backlighting has paid dividends.
When we moved onto the video processing the results were equally as impressive. This is a key area when it comes to Ultra HD 4K TVs because, for the time being, almost all the content you watch will be upscaled to match the higher resolution panel. The AX902 delivered a fantastic performance, scaling content effectively without introducing any obvious artefacts. The Panasonic passed all of our usual video processing tests and overall the quality of the deinterlacing and scaling was excellent.
We used our FPD Benchmark test disc to measure the motion resolution of the AX902 at around 300 lines which is what we would expect from an LCD TV. This could be improved to the full 1080 lines by setting the Intelligent Frame Creation (IFC) feature to low but even that gives film content an overly smooth appearance. However there is room for experimentation when it comes to sports or games but in general we found the motion handling on the AX902 to be very good. When watching 24p Blu-rays make sure that 24p Smooth Film is turned off as well, unless you want your movies to look like video. Our only criticism was that on occasion there was a slight stutter to motion. It wasn't repeatable and only happened intermittently but it was noticeable none-the-less. However in general the AX902 had very good motion handling for an LCD TV.
Black Levels, Contrast Ratio and Gamma Curve
This is the area that has received the most attention when it comes to the AX902 and it was the area that we ultimately found slightly disappointing. We started by measuring the native black level performance of the IPS panel, which came in at 0.14cd/m2 which is about what we would expect. An IPS panel has certain strengths such as a much wider viewing angles but the one area where it is definitely weakest is in terms of blacks; which is why we were surprised Panasonic decided to use them on the AX902.
However, the local dimming with its 128 zones and the direct LED backlight should help improve this black level performance considerable, which they did. With the Adaptive Backlight Control (ABC) set to Low the blacks now measured 0.02cd/m2 and with it set to Mid or High we got 0.008cd/m2. So far so good and the panel certainly lived up to its billing as bright, we could easily hit our target of 120cd/m2 with the backlight at only 30%. However when we measured the ANSI contrast ratio we got 850:1 with the ABC off and 950:1 with it set to Low.
This was hardly the plasma like contrast ratios we had been expecting and were surprised that the local dimming wasn't having a bigger impact. We could have used a higher setting but once you move to the Mid or High setting you started to get more haloing and other artefacts, so the Low setting proved the best choice. However the black levels, whilst good for an LCD TV, still weren't as impressive as our Pioneer Kuro and not a patch on the LG OLED we reviewed recently.
For the majority of our viewing we used a gamma curve of 2.4, however the AX902 also includes the BT.1886 gamma curve, so we decided to calibrate the second Professional setting using this curve to compare the two. To actually select the BT.1886 gamma curve you need to set the ABC to Low and, after comparing the two modes, we did feel that there was a shade more shadow detail but ultimately we preferred the overall look of our chosen 2.4 gamma. However we congratulate Panasonic on adding BT.1886 as an option and it's certainly something that's open to experimentation by users.
Native 4K Performance
Whilst the manufacturers are busy pushing Ultra HD 4K as the next big thing, the reality remains that we have almost no native 4K content to actually watch. At least the AX902 includes HEVC decoding, so those with a fast enough broadband connection can enjoy House of Cards in 4K on Netflix. Unfortunately we weren't able to take advantage ourselves and were reduced to watching our tried and tested 4K travelogue footage. Still as we went through the various clips the level of detail was astonishing and the AX902 delivered wonderfully bright and accurate 4K images. There were no signs of artefacts or sharpening and the motion handling was excellent, so all we need now is 4K Blu-ray or a faster broadband connection!
High Definition Performance
In the continued absence of any actual 4K content, we were left watching upscaled Full HD Blu-rays but thankfully the AX902 didn't disappoint in this area. The Panasonic produced lovely images that took full advantage of its accurate greyscale and colours, along with its higher resolution panel. We watched a number of Blu-rays including Guardians of the Galaxy, The Expendables III and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and the results were always excellent. The images were detailed and natural, the motion handling good and the blacks levels were excellent as long as you had the ABC engaged. We tried the Letterbox feature, which is supposed to turn the LEDs off in the black bars of 2.35:1 movies but setting it to Dimmer had no noticeable affect on the black bars, so we left it set to Normal. However overall the AX902 delivered an excellent image for an LCD TV and the colours, the greyscale, the brightness, the uniformity and the local dimming all combined for an excellent overall performance.
The AX902 uses passive 3D and, thanks to the higher resolution of its Ultra HD 4K panel, that means it can deliver a full 1080p image to each eye. The result is some very impressive 3D, with plenty of detail and no flicker or crosstalk. The AX902 was capable of delivering extremely accurate 3D images, whilst the motion handling remained effective and free of distracting judder. The panel's inherent brightness also came into play and when combined with the local dimming, the resulting 3D had real depth and plenty of pop. Recent 3D Blu-rays like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For looked very impressive on the AX902 although, as always with passive 3D, the vertical viewing angles were limited; so make sure the Panasonic isn't placed too high.
The AX902 delivered a lovely picture but the blacks failed to impress us in the way we had expected.
- Great backlight uniformity
- Effective local dimming
- Excellent video processing
- Reference calibration controls
- Solid build quality
- Native blacks disappointing
- Screen is very reflective
- High input lag
- Design is derivative
- Built-in WiFi is flakey
- It's expensive
Panasonic TX-55AX902B (AX902) Ultra HD 4K TV Review
Should I buy one?
The Panasonic AX902 arrives with the weight of expectation and in many respects it lives up to the hype. The build quality is excellent and whilst it's design is rather derivative, it does at least look like a flagship model. The included features are comprehensive, the remote app well designed and the accessories useful. The out-of-the-box performance was very good and thanks to some highly effective calibration controls, the AX902 could deliver a reference level of accuracy. The video processing is superb, the motion handling good for an LCD TV and, thanks to the direct LED backlight, the uniformity is excellent; whilst the panel is also very bright and the local dimming proved to be extremely capable. As a result the image quality was generally impressive regardless of the resolution and the 3D was equally as good.
However the AX902 does have a number of issues that need to be addressed. For a start the glass screen in front of the panel is highly reflective, so bright light sources need to be avoided and since the TV can't be swivelled, careful positioning is important. There are also three fans at the rear which might be too noisy for some; whilst the sideways facing connections are too near the edge of the panel. The built-in WiFi could prove flakey in operation, with the connection being lost on occasion, and the input lag is too high for serious gamers. However perhaps the biggest disappointment is the use of an IPS panel which means the native blacks are poor. The local dimming helps to improve these black levels but since it's starting from a poor base, the resulting black levels and dynamic range never quite impressed in the way we had expected.
What are my alternatives?
However the biggest problem with the Panasonic TX-55AX902B is that it's quite simply too expensive. The market for flagship Ultra HD 4K TVs is very competitive and Panasonic have taken so long to get the AX902 into the shops that the competition have stolen a march. The Samsung UE55HU8500 uses a curved 4K VA panel, has a state-of-the-art Smart TV system, reference colour accuracy and a highly effective local dimming system but, perhaps more importantly, it only costs £2,000. The Sony 55X9005B uses a flat VA panel, high quality audio, accurate colours and superb video processing but, once again, will only set you back about £2,000. The Samsung and Sony TVs have better native blacks and lower input lags as well, which really makes it hard to justify spending an additional £1,500 on the 55AX902.
Of course if you aren't that bothered about Ultra HD 4K, and let's be honest there isn't that much native 4K, then you have another alternative. LG's latest Full HD OLED TV - the 55EC930V - offers black levels and a dynamic range that are superior to any plasma, let alone an LCD TV, and whilst the EC930 might not be perfect, the performance is generally excellent. Perhaps more importantly it also retails for £1,999 which is nearly half the cost of the 55AX902. There is plenty about the Panasonic TX-55AX902B to recommend but the simple fact is that at a retail price of £3,499 there are cheaper and equally as impressive alternatives available. In fact currently you could buy a flagship Samsung or Sony Ultra HD 4K TV and still have enough left over to almost buy an LG Full HD OLED TV as well!
Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black Level8
2D Picture Quality9
3D Picture Quality10
Picture Quality Out-Of-The-Box8
Picture Quality Calibrated10
Ease Of Use8
Value for Money7
Our Review Ethos
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